Zaffre | 2019 (27 June) | 367p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Exiled is the sequel to one of my very favourite books of 2017, the remarkable Deposed. What if Nero didn’t die in AD 68? What if he managed to get away, blinded, maimed, a different man, to somewhere distant from Rome where he could plot against the emperors who succeeded him? That is the premise of this fantastic series and I’m delighted (but not surprised) to say that The Exiled is every bit as good as its predecessor. I would urge you to read Deposed first, even though The Exiled stands well on its own. This review assumes you’ve done just that.
It is the summer of AD 79. Emperor Vespasian has just recently died and the new ruler is his son Titus, a man of action. Titus is also a superstitious man and he is troubled by the words of an oracle, which foretold a great disaster and, perhaps even more troubling, that a slave will rule. There is trouble in the East, yet again. Brothers compete, and murder, for the Parthian throne. There are Parthian hostages in Rome, pledged during an earlier war, and now they will be caught in the middle of a power struggle between Rome, which they hate, and Parthia, which they no longer know. As a Parthian embassy arrives in Rome, trouble stirs and plots are hatched.
Keenly observing it all, with senses other than his blind eyes, is the wealthy Spanish senator Lucius Ulpius, who is growing ever closer to the emperor Titus. Titus’ closest friend, Pliny, both admiral and scientist, is jealous but, more to the point, he is also suspicious, and he instructs his young nephew Gaius to observe. But there is something else to fascinate Pliny – the mountain of Vesuvius rumbles ominously and the ground shakes.
The Exiled is a very, very good book. As with its predecessor, this is such an original take on a very familiar period of Roman history. Here we have Nero as never presented before. He was brought to the very depths of despair, blinded, tortured and humiliated. But, thanks to Marcus (now passed off as the senator’s nephew) and men like him, Nero survived and he has forgotten nothing, despite the transformation undergone by his character due to what he has suffered. Nero, now Lucius Ulpius, has learned wisdom from his suffering. He wants revenge but he is prepared to wait for the right time and serve it cold.
The focus in this novel isn’t actually on Ulpius at all. He’s always there in the background. We can never forget him. But much of the narrative is told in the present tense by Gaius, the nephew of the extraordinary man we know as Pliny the Elder. This is fascinating! Gaius is the perfect witness to history. He’s been instructed by his uncle on how and what to observe and, although at times he is forced into social situations he hates, he learns and watches and records. And then everything is overshadowed by the eruption of Vesuvius.
The Exiled is such an exciting and riveting novel – a Roman political thriller with a disaster novel thrown in for our added enjoyment. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages. We hear other voices and they resonate, especially Titus’s sister Domitilla, who is caught up in something way beyond her control. And then there’s the Parthian hostage, Barlaas. Each of these has a unique voice and plays such a central part in a brilliant story. We see so many aspects of Roman life, including the games. Here we meet gladiators as well as senators, servants, the inn keepers, the ordinary man and woman on the street, each of which has a significant part to play in what unfolds.
There is so much plot in The Exiled! There is clearly – thankfully – much more to come and in a future novel I’m sure we will see how Nero/Ulpius has manoeuvered himself. In The Exiled, he plays a quiet but significant part. Ironically, Titus is worried by the False Neros who threaten him in the East, never realising that the real Nero is right under his nose.
I could go on and on about how much I love The Exiled. Really, you just need to read it for yourself. It’s a story, a thriller, that works on so many levels as Nero works his way into the emperor’s court. But, on top of that, the chapters set in Pompeii are riveting. The Exiled, just like its predecessor Deposed, is original, clever, exciting and engrossing. I can’t praise it or its author enough.